East-bound on I-70, Leaving Colby, KS
David stared out the window of Prophet’s Astin Martin into the farmland and darkness that surrounded the highway, counting mile-markers as they passed to know how many they had put between him and the prison that had held him his entire life. Seventy-two and counting. Not enough by far, but they still had several hours of driving between now and Kansas City, and each one left him feeling lighter. No more dumb water tower. No more Wheat-Jesus Billboard. No more Cooper Barn museum. No more parents. No more Colby. No more any of it.
He turned his attention the bulging envelope in his lap. Like everything about Prophet, even the envelope was nice than any he had ever seen. He carefully lifted the flap and stared at the bulging content. He ran his finger slowly across the top of the hundred dollar bills, letting them flip by without trying to count them, simply in awe of how many there were, more than he ever imagined would be his. He brought the envelope to his nose and sniffed. New money, the smell of freedom.
His whole body buzzed with a nervous energy, and it wasn’t from the coffee. He was happy, actually happy. It had been so long he had forgotten what it felt like, and the sudden stark contrast between then and now made him wonder how he had survived it for so long, but he had made it out, and that’s what counted.
And if you hadn’t killed Ester she’d be here with you. Instead you left her trapped in a Colby grave forever.
His good mood faltered. He closed the enveloped of cash and stuffed it in his backpack.
He had tried to help her. He had tried to get Ester to stop taking so many pills all the time.
Oh yeah? Is that why you helped her get more pills? That’s a funny way to “help”.
What was he supposed to have done? She was so sad those last few weeks; her pills were the only thing that made her at all happy. He had just wanted to help, that’s all.
Help kill her.
She gave up on him! She gave up on their pact of getting out of Colby! All she could talk about was how nothing mattered anymore. We were so close! Why didn’t that matter to you? Why didn’t I matter?
You know why. Leaving you is easy. There’s nothing about you worth living for, let alone loving. It’s not just that you’re useless, it’s how much of a burden you are. Ester would have made it out if you had just killed yourself. How can you even stand yourself with how selfish you are?
He couldn’t take it, he needed out of his head.
“You know all that stuff you were telling me,” he said, his voice sounding strange in place of the silence that had been there, “this morning, about good and bad people?”And, you know…” he gave an incredulous laugh, “saving everybody?”
Prophet didn’t respond. David shifted nervously, but continued.
“Well, what if…” It was difficult to say the words. “What if none it matters?“
Prophet glanced over at him, but said nothing. The words began to rush out of him.
“Like, what if nothing matters?” He tried to think how Ester had phrased it. “What if everything we do is pointless and meaningless and everything is hopeless?”
“Do you believe nothing matter?” Prophet asked calmly.
He shrugged. “What if I do? What if it doesn’t matter whether I do or not? What if it’s true anyway?”
“What’ you’re describing is Nihilism, the worship of The Nothing.”
“How can you worship nothing?”
“Not nothing. The Nothing.”
“The Nothing. It is the antithesis of all life. It’s where The Emptiness comes from. It has only one purpose, one desire: to make everyone Nothing as well. That’s what it means to be a Husk, to be lost to The Emptiness. You become part of The Nothing.”
“But how does nothing want something? It’s nothing.”
Prophet seemed to consider the question for a moment. “How familiar are you with gravity?”
“Uhh.” He tried to think of the formulas he had been taught back in high school, but he couldn’t remember any of them. “Somewhat? Why? Is the Nothing like gravity?”
“In a way, yes. Tell me, what is gravity?”
“I don’t know.” He hated all these questions. “Does anyone know?”
“Gravity is a fundamental physical force, and whether we fully understand it or not, we can experience its effects.”
Prophet pulled a pen from his pocket as he spoke and held it aloft.
“Drop something,” He dropped the pen. “And it will fall, whether we understand why or not.”
The pen slipped silently between the seats and disappeared. It had gone in so smoothly it didn’t even make a sound. Weird.
“The Nothing is like that. Working unseen and against us.”
“So you’re saying if I think nothing matters I’m some kind of Devil worshiper?”
“No, but let me explain. The Devil, as a concept, is a conscious entity with malevolent intent. The Nothing isn’t a consciousness, it’s a transcendent spiritual imbalance, and like any imbalance it applies a force, but instead of being on our bodies it’s on our souls. It begins with pain. Pain is to the soul like a cut is to your skin, it makes you vulnerable to infection, and The Emptiness is eager to get in. Fearing that nothing matters, something everyone experiences at some point, is a manifestation of The Emptiness, of the force The Nothing applies on our soul. But rather than push or pull like physical force, it replaces a part your soul with itself. Do you understand?”
He nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think I follow.” It wasn’t something he had ever heard of, but it seemed to make sense.
Prophet nodded. “The Emptiness is a disease. Nihilism is spiritual un-health. You wouldn’t tell someone infirm with the flu that their state is desirable. You wouldn’t serve the virus by spreading it, would you?”
“Of course not.” He wished so badly that he had known all this. He could have helped Ester understand how she was sick.
“So does this mean that everything bad that happens is caused by The Nothing?”
“It’s oddly comforting to believe that all our pain has an external cause that we’re helpless against, isn’t it? But no, it isn’t so. The aspect of The Divine that’s present in everyone is agency. The Nothing calls us to it and it’s everlasting offer of oblivion, be we need not answer.”
“Okay, but why does something so terrible exist?”
Prophet considered the question. “Perhaps to serve as a test. Perhaps because it must.”
David slumped in his seat. “Either way it’s hopeless. How can you fight gravity?”
Prophet turned and gave him a wry smile that didn’t quite seem to reach his eyes. “You give up too easily, David, have faith. The gravity of an whole planet pulls on you every minute of every day, yet I doubt you live in fear of it.
“I don’t have faith.”
Prophet didn’t respond. As the silence dragged on, David gave what Prophet had said more thought. “So…you’re saying even if The Nothing is always there, it’s not always dangerous?”
“That’s right. The Nothing may be ubiquitous and eternal, but it’s not always dangerous. Falling from your bed won’t allow gravity to do you much harm, but fall from a cliff and it would become terribly dangerous. There are equally many situations which make us more or less vulnerable to The Nothing, but with integrity and help from others we can oppose it successfully, and the fight isn’t forever. There is a place were our souls are beyond its reach.
David nodded. “Okay, that makes sense, but, you know, I still don’t see how any of what you’ve told me makes anything matter.”
“Have you ever loved someone, David?”
“I’ve never had a girlfriend if that’s what you’re asking,” he said stiffly, crossing his arms. Why did everyone take every opportunity to remind him of how much of a failure he was?
“I didn’t ask if you had a lover,” said Prophet flatly, “I asked if you ever loved anyone.”
“Oh.” He couldn’t remember a time when he’d loved his parents. Feared maybe, but loved? Never. They had always had rotted holes instead of hearts. He had had friends, but none of them ever stuck around very long. No extended family that he’d met more than in passing. There was really only one person he could think of, and she was dead.
“I loved my sister.”
Prophet nodded. “And did you want her to be happy?”
“Of course I did!” What kind of dumb question is that? “She was the only person I cared about.”
“So her happiness mattered to you?”
“Yeah, I just said so, try listening. So what?”
Prophet smiled. “What’s truly remarkable is that within each of us is the power to create meaning, and we do so simply by loving. If there’s something you love doing, then the pursuit of it has meaning, as does sharing it with others. If you love another person, then they become meaningful. That meaning is eternal, once it’s created it can never be unmade.”
David tried to process this. “Why do you think it works that way?”
“Your sister died, but does that mean she never existed?”
“No, of course not.”
“Whether it’s meaning, people, or past experiences, they’re all eternal once created. They were, and so they will always have been. The fact that they’re not now is nothing more than our limited perception and ability to experience time.”
David felt like a light inside him had been switched on. “It can’t be that simple.”
“And yet, it is. You and most put too little importance on your capacity for love, and love itself. It is both a part of us and beyond us, and because of it the world is bursting with meaning.”
This was all so unexpected, and so much to take in. “It’s…hard to believe.”
Prophet nodded slowly. “It is hard, David, to believe.”
Belief, a word he hated as much as faith, yet despite himself he couldn’t deny the way Prophet’s explanation had made him feel — hopeful. Ester had been wrong, her life had had meaning, and he realized that he owed it to her to let her death have meaning too. He made it out of Colby like they had promised each other they would, and he would do all he could to keep The Nothing from getting to anyone else.
The Nothing really had gotten to her, hadn’t it? Thinking of it eating away at her while he just brought her more pills hurt so much.
“You said this guys back in the diner were Husk, right?”
“And my parents are too?”
He took a deep breath. He was scared. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “What about Ester?”
Prophet’s expression became unreadable. “The Nothing, though not conscious, is clever. Once inside it seeks to unbalance us in any way that bring us closer to it. In some it stokes hate and pleasure in the suffering of others. In others, like your sister, fear or self-doubt. It finds your deepest fears, weaknesses, and insecurities, then whispers to you that they’re all true. It tells you that only what hurts is real, and that any happiness is a fleeting illusion in an otherwise endless sea of suffering, and that you deserve it all. This is surely what happened to your sister.”
Prophet gave him a quick and heavy glance.
“Regardless of what strategy The Nothing employs against us, once The Emptiness has spread to all of a soul they cannot recover, and become one with The Nothing. All that is left is a Husk — an empty shell that’s only purpose is to spread The Emptiness.”
“Ester’s soul is dead.” His heart sunk completely.
“Yes, and her suicide, like an infection spore blown by the wind, was how she spread The Emptiness. I’m sorry, David.”
“Ester didn’t kill herself.” She hadn’t. No one said she had. Prophet was wrong. “She O.D.ed.”
Prophet’s voice turned stern. “Your sister knew where the path she was on lead. She could see The Nothing looming on the horizon, could see it getting closer every day, but she kept walking that path, one needle at a time, until she walked right off the edge.”
“She wasn’t using needles until the end, and only because I couldn’t find her any more pills.”
“She may have been a good person once, but that only makes her death more tragic. She died a Husk because your parents started her down the path that killed her, passing her their Emptiness with their opiates.”
“You think I didn’t know my parents were shit? We both knew. We had to live with them dragging us down every fucking day of our lives. But we made a pact. We swore we would protect each other; make sure we both got out. But now? She’ll never get out, and that’s my fault. She’s dead because of me. Her soul is dead because of me. I knew she was addicted, but I wanted to believe her when she said the pills and needles were temporary, that she just needed them until we got out. It’s all my fault.”
“Yes, it is your fault.”
He felt like Prophet had punched him in the stomach. He couldn’t breath. How could Prophet say that? Rage surged inside him, but it wanted to consume him more than Prophet.
“She wasn’t the only having a hard fucking time, you know!”
“So what are you going to do, David? How will you make your amends? Will you drown your sorrows in drugs until The Nothing takes you too, or will fight?”
“I…I…I don’t think I can do this.” Fuck everything. Why did everything have to hurt so much all the time? He wished Ester had made it out instead of him. He missed her so much. He was a such a failure at everything, she could have forgotten him easily enough and been happy. How could he ever make this right again?
“You underestimate yourself, but worse you underestimate me. You can’t imagine the power I have at my command, nor how much I can impart of it to you, but you will. Remember I told you we’re family? Our shared ancestor, Daria, The Great Seeker of Truth, left behind more than just an account of her communion with The Divine, she left clues to something else, something truly ancient and powerful.”
He didn’t care. His head slumped against the window. “What?” he asked.
“A book. A very powerful book that was hidden behind seven seals I broke. This book.”
An overhead light came on and Prophet pulled a small, leather-bound book from his jacket pocket and held it out to him. He eyed it, disinterested, wishing it was a gun, but took it anyway.
“It’s just some old book,” he said, unimpressed.
“It taught me all I’ve taught you, and much, much more. Why don’t you open it, and we’ll see what it shows you.”
What does that even mean? He was getting so tired of everything. Rolling his eyes, he opened the book to a random page. Instead of words he found bizarre hieroglyphs — jagged, thorny, and interlaced — each segment strung together through the center of the small symbols with lines that when combined created an ornate rectangle set on a grid with something like fifty points along the horizontal and a hundred along the vertical.
“There aren’t any words, it’s more like some kind of weird Middle-Eastern art piece. What am I…”
From the corner of his eye David thought he saw something move on the page. He turned back to it and inspected it closer. He began to see a vast array of intricate details in the designs that he had missed before, and found that there was some kind of motion to them. An optical illusion? He wasn’t sure, but they were definitely moving.
The hieroglyphs became deeper, so much deeper, and as they did their two dimensional interweaving expanded backwards into the third, and then into a dimension he had no words for. He felt himself pulled into the hole of glyphs while simultaneously pressed back against his seat by an incredible force. The opposing forces tore him in two while opening him up. Into his human wreckage poured water in volume and fury. No, not water, everything, anything, all possibility. Endless morphing shapes and sounds of everything imaginable drowned his consciousness as they filled him, and though he wasn’t full — wouldn’t ever be full, couldn’t be full — he knew he was dangerously close to bursting, and what little that remained of him had been stretched too thin to contain it. He was dying.
Somewhere, what remained of person named David screamed.
Prophet closed the book.
He was back in the car, still screaming. His heart pounded, he gasped for air. He slammed himself against the door, trying vainly to put any space he could between himself and the book as Prophet put it back into his jacket pocket.
“It’s a difficult read, isn’t it?”
“What did you do to me!”
“Now you know something of my power. I’ve share a taste with you of something few will ever know, the voice of The Divine. They don’t waste words. They’ll have told you something very important. You need to gigure out what it is.”
“What the fuck does that mean!? Seriously, what the fuck did you do!?” He needed to get out of the car. Now! “You tried to kill me!”
“The voice of The Divine isn’t easy to hear. You’ll need time to understand it.”
“All I need is out. I’m out. Take the money, I’m out!”
“All you need is sleep, David.”
“No I fucking need…” Prophet had said that last word in a weird way. He struggled to think. What had he been about to say? Why was it so hard to think? “I need to…”
“Sleep?” He muttered the words through half-lidded eyes.
“Sleep” Why fight it? It felt good to give in. He closed his eyes and slumped in his seat.